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Diversity in fashion: Where we are now and how far we have left to go

The future is female

Diversity in fashion: Where we are now and how far we have left to go
Fashion week is responsible for setting the trends for months, sometimes years to come. So what does that mean when diversity is the prevailing theme across New York, London, Milan and Paris?

It's easy to make a mountain out of a molehill, especially within the hyped bubble that is fashion. The latest sneaker drop is surely buzz-worthy, but at the end of the day, many could argue that it's merely a pair of shoes. A sick collaboration will garner endless regrams, but in a year or two, it would have dissipated from memory. That's just how the industry works. It's fast, its flame bright and it consumes as quickly as it diminishes.

Is that the true story of fashion though? A random sampling of some of the major moments that defined the last 100 years in style — for instance, Chanel's little black dress in the '20s, Dior's New Look in the '50s, Yves Saint Laurent's Le Smoking suit in the '60s — prove that they are first and foremost inscribed by trends. However, when you look beyond the stitching, the trends tailor a message just as, if not more significant, than the actual clothing. Chanel's liberation of women from the corsetry of centuries past, Dior's post-war return to femininity, Saint Laurent's repossession of a traditionally menswear silhouette for the female figure, these historical figures fashioned their own cultural evolutions in changing times. Fashion isn't merely a mirror of changes in a society; it has often been its motor. If that is so, 10, 20, 30 years down the road, what will they remember us by?

"Chanel's liberation of women from the corsetry of centuries past, Dior's post-war return to femininity, Saint Laurent's repossession of a traditionally menswear silhouette for the female figure, these figures fashioned their own cultural evolutions in changing times."

Diversity is a major clue, a topic we have explored and will continue to divulge. For those who still think it's an issue not relevant to Asia, read up on the recent misrepresentation of minorities (read: non-whites) that happened on our shores. In fashion, the atmosphere has been notably friendlier, its efforts for diversity more promising than it is in entertainment.

Take the last fashion week. All eyes were on the stage as Halima Aden, a Somali-American model of Muslim faith walked the shows of not one, not two but three major shows at fashion week — without removing her hijab. A small victory for the misunderstood community, a giant leap in the fashion sphere. It's vaguely reminiscent of Yves Saint Laurent's fidelity to his nature of smashing conventions, which propelled fellow Somali model Iman (full name Iman Mohamed Abdulmajidin) into fame through one of his advertising campaigns in 1966. A few years later, Kenzo Takada placed coloured models such as Iman alongside his Japanese muse, Sayoko Yamaguchi in his show. In 2008, Vogue Italia released an "all black" issue — it sold out within 72 hours — celebrating models of colour to both praise and criticism. Some call those instances breakthroughs, though their effects still slow-moving.

Iman dressed in Yves Saint Laurent, 1977

Racial advances aside, industry leaders touting feminist ideals are slowly but surely putting their money where their mouth is. Prabal Gurung is a prime example of a designer exercising his political views. For the finale of his fall/winter 2017 show, he boldly expressed his ideological and political manifesto on T-shirts bearing the following slogans: "Love is the resistance", "Break down walls" and "We will not be silenced". He didn't stop there. Upon creating a capsule collection for plus-size brand Lane Bryant, Prabal Gurung sent down his runway, plus-size models Candice Huffine, Marquita Pring and Ashley Graham, the latter of whom was also featured on the cover of the December 2016 issue of British Vogue.

"While the rest of the world is desperate for fashion to embrace broader definitions of physical beauty, some of our most famous fashion brands appear to be travelling in the opposite — and in my opinion, unwise — direction." — Alexandra Shulman

Ashley GrahamBut just as the industry is driven by progress, the call for diversity has been met with resistance of no small degree. Editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman revealed that not all designers welcomed the gracing of Ashley Graham on the cover. She wrote in her editor's note: "They [Coach] were enthusiastic about dressing a woman who is not a standard model but sadly there were other houses that flatly refused to lend us their clothes." She continued, "It seems strange to me that while the rest of the world is desperate for fashion to embrace broader definitions of physical beauty, some of our most famous fashion brands appear to be travelling in the opposite — and in my opinion, unwise — direction."

We will not be silenced indeed.

Another prominent figure fighting for diversity of all shapes, colour and creed is Imran Aman. The Indian-born Canadian founder and editor-in-chief of The Business of Fashion urged models and designers to include a white bandana in their styling during fall/winter 2017 fashion week as a sign of support of the movement #TiedTogether. Its cause: Unity, solidarity and inclusiveness. The bandana was spotted around models' wrists at Tommy Hilfiger, Diane von Furstenberg and Thakoon as well as on the belt hoops, hair and necklines of show goers and social media influencers.

Jack Eyers in Teatum Jones fall/winter 2017

The call for inclusion will not be complete without the embrace of individuals with disabilities; a point embodied by Isabella Springmühl, the 20-year-old designer with Down Syndrome (she gained waves of support on social media for her label Down To Xjabelle), and driven home by Catherine Teatum and Rob Jones of British label Teatum Jones. The British designer duo opened London Fashion Week with a collection titled "The Body", casting models Kelly Knox and Jack Eyers for their show. Knox was born without the lower half of her right arm and Eyers is a one-legged amputee. The soundtrack to which they marched couldn't be more pointed — it contained an extract of Meryl's Street now iconic Golden Globes speech. The award-winning actress used her 6-minute airtime during the acceptance of her Cecil B. DeMille Award to criticise Donald Trump for his mocking of a disabled journalist. 

For an industry that popularised the phrase "out with the old", it has recently employed a poignant way of renegading on the very brand of ageism it endorsed for decades. If the portrait of a 48-year-old Christy Turlington Burns for Valentino is any indication, age may very well soon be just a number in fashion. Less than two months later, Dries Van Noten reunited 54 models of various age brackets in commemoration of his 100th turn on the runway, all of whom have walked his past shows. Simone Rocha bent the rules too and set the catwalk ablaze with Benedetta Barzini, 73, Cecilia Chancellor, 51 and Amber Valleta, 43.

Jan de Villeneuve at Simone Rocha fall/winter 2017

The temptation to pat ourselves on the back is real. While we have we come a long way, it also took us more time than it should have to get to where we are. Then there's the fact that the road ahead towards greater diversity and broader inclusion is not a linear one. Keyboard warriors and traditionalists who think themselves as purists will hit back relentlessly and behind every designer who dresses the likes of Ashley Graham are two more firing resounding nos. But social media is an army with a voice that gets louder with numbers. Change starts with calling out brands on cultural appropriation. Movements grow momentum when we call out brands grossly under-representing a community and those guilty of social injustices, no matter how trivial.

Progress starts with you, and it starts here.

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